CLR5 contains a previously uncollected story by Donald Barthelme. Here’s how we came to publish it (by editor Boris Jardine).
I first heard about Donald Barthelme’s work on the New Yorker’s Out Loud podcast, in an interview with Louis Menand (available here). Menand describes Barthelme’s distinctive style, his status as a ‘postmodern’ writer, and talks in particular about an early short story ‘The Viennese Opera Ball’—a brilliant collage of technical medical information, lines culled from Hemingway and others, and an oblique account of the eponymous goings on. On Abebooks I found the copy of Contact magazine from 1962 with the story, and then, hooked, bought the beautiful Secker & Warburg collection. To understand what makes Barthelme so great, just listen to this reading of one of his most famous stories, ‘I bought a little city’, read by Donald Antrim and weirdly resonant with recent urban unrest.
With Menand’s careful exposition in mind—placing Barthelme firmly within the modernist tradition, by turns acerbic and uproarious, suspicious of consumer culture, riding the zeitgeist—I think the CLR’s short fiction is deeply Barthelmian. Lorqi Blinx’s ‘Cowards are Great’ (issue two) for example, hits plenty of those highs: unwillingness to dodge cultural references that are locally brilliant but will date; a Borgesian fidelity to the inner logic of the conceit; and, of course, wit. Rosie Šnajdr’s ‘The Cake Woman’ in issue one is also in this lineage. So while putting together issue 5 I began to wonder what had become of all Barthelme’s stories. On the one hand he was prolific, and wrote under pseudonyms. But, on the other, he’s incredibly well known, especially in the US, and his short fiction has been collected and republished many times. Could there be any ‘lost’ works? For some reason I had a feeling there might be.
At this point I found Jessamyn West’s excellent Barthelme fan site, containing mention of ‘The Ontological Basis of Two’. Here was an early story that appeared to have slipped through the net. It was printed in 1963 in a gentleman’s magazine called Cavalier (see above), under the pseudonym Michael Houston, and has circulated in photocopy and scan ever since. Again I was able to buy a copy of the magazine—a kind of sub-Playboy but full of intriguing investigative pieces, political comment and stories—and I eagerly read Barthelme’s piece.
Crucially, of course, it’s good. In fact it’s really good. Barthelme has many modes, but there are two broad categories and two constants: the categories are wild collage and deceptively straight narrative, the constants his beautifully turned sentences and penchant for repetition. This is the opening paragraph of ‘The Ontological Basis of Two’:
Peridot Concord was raised in a glass box by a Harvard professor and is as beautiful as money, as saucy as Hollandaise, as captivating as Pancho Villa. She is also sexless as a Senator. She likes to walk around in mostly her skin, the magnificent flesh tones, ranging from golden sienna to a sinister umber, filling the air with deadly radiation. You begin, perhaps, to see the outlines of the problem.
This is Type II Barthelme: the progression of the story is as linear as can be. And it’s vintage stuff; that last sentence in particular—measured, cool and perfectly rhythmical. The “flesh tones” are an example of the second tic I mentioned; they recur throughout the story, commodifying Peridot and giving her a mechanical aspect.
In Menand’s interview he stresses just how modish Barthelme was, and that’s in evidence in ‘The Ontological Basis of Two’. Peridot has been “raised in glass box”, i.e. a Skinner Box—a chamber designed for studying animal behaviour by B.F. Skinner in the 1940s. Clearly Barthelme was a keen reader of contemporary psychology, and was not impressed with what he found. ‘I bought a little city’, linked to above, is a parody of Skinner’s utopian novel Walden Two, and in ‘The Ontological Basis’ the behaviourist-Freudian complex comes under sustained attack. Barthelme was pretty up to the minute: in 1959 Noam Chomsky had published his famous review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour, effectively ending the behaviourists’ reign as chief interpreters of human psychology. Incidentally, Chomsky’s attack on behaviourism also contributed to the avant-garde via his famous grammatical but absurd sentence “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” (later to be brilliantly parodied in a Fry & Laurie sketch). And maybe Barthelme’s pseudonym refers not only to his home town but to John Huston’s 1962 film Freud: The Secret Passion (1962).
Psychoanalysis makes its entrance early in the story, when we learn that Peridot, “sexless as a Senator”, can only be inspired to lust by her father, the experimentalist who engineered her sterile upbringing. The remainder of the story recounts the narrator’s attempts to rewire Peridot in order to get at her “swelling, young, Maidenform bosom”…
Having secured rights from the Wylie Agency and the Barthelme estate, to both of whom huge thanks are due, I transcribed and typeset the story, first in this issue’s prose section. Then, thinking of the Chicago Review’s excellent recent cover image, which wraps around to great effect—a proud boxer on one side, his slain foe on the other—I put together a cover featuring a joyous baby safely sealed in a Skinner Box, proud parent (or is that ‘experimenter’?) looking on: